SUPER EGO "I've taken plenty of cheeseball photos just because I wanted to play with some boy's nipples," longtime club snapper and braided-bearded pixel elf Eric "ShutterSlut" Stein (www.shutterslut.com) tells me over the phone. "Some people take nightlife photography way too seriously. It's about having fun."
None can deny the avalanche of flashes that has overtaken nightlife, a neo-Warholian cataclysm of f-stopped frolic Polaroids, RIP diutf8g lenses and pulsating softboxes sprouting like neon mushrooms on the dark underbelly of the underground. It is annoying? It is over? Maybe, but it's now a legitimate practice of nightlife performance, democratized by digital, adopted by post-ironists, crucial for Facebook updates.
San Francisco sports a celebrated legacy of sublebrity paparazzi, stretching from relative newcomers like Leo Herrera, Brandon Norris, Parker Day, Darwin Bell, Parker Tilghman, Ava Berlin, Silke Labson, Furtographer, and Jerome Pour Homme back to classic demimonde shutterbugs like Rink Foto, Barton Crawford, Robert Pruzan, and Uncle Donald. There was a brief break: upper-crust social event and rough-edged street fashion photography are ancient nightlife traditions, of course, but except for the gloriously clubkid-oriented, camera-loving Clubstitute, Product, Uranus, and Baby Judy's scenes the underground movement that arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s eschewed runway-like snaps for a resurrected sense of temporal erasure. "Living for the moment" meant you were a lens-unfriendly, often illegal, sweaty mess, no matter how meticulously decorated.
Plus, who wanted to lug their three-pound 35mm to an all-night rave? "I think a big part of what honed my instincts was the fact that taking pictures used to be really expensive," says ShutterSlut. "I was paying $400 a month for developing. At that price, you learn quick to sense good shots." ShutterSlut, who came to San Francisco in 1991, first rose to prominence as a house photographer for Trannyshack and Sugar at the Stud in the mid-'90s. He's straddled the analog-digital divide and is completely self-taught. "Some art student yelled at me once for using 100-speed film in the club, and I thought, 'Screw you, I'm free,'" he says. "But it was still a learning process I have hundreds of pictures of wonderful people who are no longer with us that are completely useless because I didn't know what I was doing at first."
If he didn't know what he was doing, why did he do it? "I think nightlife photography is a calling not just to document fabulousness but to inhabit an identity," he says. "I loved the scene I was part of, but I felt like a hanger-on. I wasn't a drag queen, not really, or a DJ or singer. But I wanted to contribute somehow, and it turned out I was pretty good. I developed my own aesthetic hard flash, focus on detail, close-ups, very little retouching. Purity. Through photography, I became more comfortable with who I was.
"It also got me on the guest list," he laughs.
What does he think of all the club-photog newbies? "It's easy to be catty about what's happening now," ShutterSlut continues, "You know, like, 'You think you're a photographer, but you're just taking pictures, honey.' But there's some genuine talent out there, so why not? As long as you're not pissing people off."
A few years ago there was a well-founded panic that social networking sites would drain clubs of their patrons. Why go meatspace when you could cybermeet? This proved especially true, at least at first, of gay bars, in particular leather and fetish watering holes.